John Michael Nchekwube Obinna (born 22 April 1987), variously known as John Obi Mikel, John Mikel Obi or Mikel John Obi, is a Nigerian professional footballer who plays as a midfielder for Chinese club Tianjin TEDA in the Chinese Super League and the Nigeria national team.
Mikel was born in Jos, Nigeria, as John Michael Nchekwube Obinna, the son of Michael Obi, who runs an inter-state transport company in Jos, the capital of Plateau State. As his father was a member of the Igbo ethnic group, "Nchekwube" means "hope" and "Obi" is a nickname for the Igbo name "Obinna" (meaning "Father's heart").
Mikel started his official football career at the age of 12 when picked as a talented footballer from over 3,000 young talents to play in Pepsi Football Academy, a team that at the time was well known for travelling across Nigeria scouting young footballers with the potential to play professionally. Obi stood out to scouts and was later picked to play for top-flight club Plateau United, a side that had previously developed stars Celestine Babayaro, Victor Obinna and Chris Obodo, among others, that went on to success in European leagues. Later known as John Obi Mikel, he made headlines for his country at the FIFA Under-17 World Championships held in Finland. Following the tournament, he went on to a trial at South Africa club Ajax Cape Town, ultimately joining Oslo-based club Lyn Fotball in Norway.
During preparations for the 2003 FIFA Under-17 World Championships, the Nigerian Football Association (NFA) mistakenly submitted "Michael" as "Mikel" for the tournament in Finland. He decided to keep the new name, saying that it had a "special ring to it." On 31 July 2006, he stated that he prefers to be called Mikel John Obi instead of John Obi Mikel, as he had most commonly been called.
In the summer of 2005, Mikel played for Nigeria at the FIFA World Youth Championships held in the Netherlands. He had an excellent tournament until Nigeria reached the final, where they lost 2–1 to Argentina. Obi won the Silver Ball after being voted the tournament's second-best player.
Controversial transfer to England
On 29 April 2005, a few days after Mikel turned 18, Premier League club Manchester United announced that it had struck a deal with Lyn to sign the player. United's website also claimed that they had done a deal directly with the teenager and that he had signed a contract to join them. Mikel's agents were bypassed as the club persuaded the youngster to sign a four-year contract without representation. Lyn allegedly sent a fax to his agents abroad, claiming their services were no longer required by Mikel. Reports said the deal was initially worth £4 million, and would see the player arrive at Old Trafford in January 2006.
Manchester United's rival Premier League club, Chelsea, later issued a counter-claim suggesting that they already had an agreement with Mikel and his agents, but Lyn denied this claim. However, subsequent reports indicated that Chelsea claimed to have been involved in arranging the player's original move to Europe with a view to signing him at a later date. Further substance was added to this claim after it was revealed that the player had impressed Chelsea manager José Mourinho while training with the club's first-team squad during the summer of 2004.
Mikel expressed his delight at joining United in a hastily arranged press conference, where he was pictured holding up a Manchester United shirt bearing the squad number 21. Following his signing of the contract to join United, there were claims from Norway that he had received a number of threatening phone calls from unknown sources. Mikel was assigned a security guard and moved to a safe hotel.
On 11 May 2005, however, the midfielder went missing during a Norwegian Cup game against Klemetsrud; he had not been selected for the match but had been watching from the stands. Whilst the player was believed to have left with one of his agents, John Shittu, who had by now flown in to meet Mikel, his disappearance sparked massive media coverage in Norway and also provoked a police enquiry after Lyn Director Morgan Andersen made claims in the Norwegian media that Mikel had been "kidnapped." These claims were later repeated by Manchester United's assistant manager Carlos Queiroz, who accused Chelsea of being involved in the alleged "kidnapping."